Ethical guidelines for working with the community

It is important to engage with communities in an ethical manner. This helps protect both the community and your team members from any potential harm.

working with community

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) along with the Australian Research Council and Universities Australia have published the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007). This document outlines guidelines to be followed to ensure that research involving people is done in an ethical manner, from planning through completion of a project. While the ethics laid out in the guidelines are specific to research, the ethical standpoint is applicable to other human interaction as well, including that of community-based activities.

Harm avoidance

Harm avoidance is a key concern when considering ethical ways of working within the community.

The following specific forms of harm are identified in Section 2.1 of the National Statement and should be avoided. It is important to note that this list is not exhaustive as there may be other types of harm:

  • Physical harms: including injury, illness, pain;
  • Psychological harms: including feelings of worthlessness, distress, guilt, anger or fear related, for example, to disclosure of sensitive or embarrassing information, or learning about a genetic possibility of developing an untreatable disease;
  • Devaluation of personal worth: including being humiliated, manipulated or in other ways treated disrespectfully or unjustly;
  • Social harms: including damage to social networks or relationships with others; discrimination in access to benefits, services, employment or insurance; social stigmatisation; and findings of previously unknown paternity status;
  • Economic harms: including the imposition of direct or indirect costs on participants;
  • Legal harms: including discovery and prosecution of criminal conduct.

In order to avoid the harms listed above, there is a need to assess, minimise and manage risk, when planning community activities. For more information on risk management, see Section 2.1: Risk and Benefit of the National Statement.

Working with vulnerable groups

When assessing risk, it is also important to keep in mind ethical considerations pertaining to particular vulnerable groups and communities.

Section 4 of the National Statement outlines how to approach vulnerable groups. This section provides detailed guidelines for working with specific vulnerable groups, such as children, women who are pregnant, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


Another aspect of ensuring that work in the community is ethical, is to ensure that participants of community activities consent to participate. The consent should be a voluntary choice based on sufficient information and understanding of outcomes, as well as the implications of participation. For more information on understanding, qualifying, and obtaining consent, see Section 2.2: General Requirements for Consent of the National Statement.

Privacy and Confidentiality

When collecting any data or personal information as part of the community, it is important to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of individuals, and communities.

Section 3.1, Element 4: Collection, Use and Management of Data and Information of the National Statement addresses “the ethical issues related to generation, collection, access, use, analysis, disclosure, storage, retention, disposal, sharing and re-use of data or information”.